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Preparing for a Normal-ish School Year

How to help kids transition back after unusual circumstances.

As summer winds down, the time has come to help your children prepare for the school year ahead. This year offers a chance to get back to normalcy with students in school full-time and opportunities for friends and play; however, there are still many questions and unknowns as the pandemic wanes. Here are tips on how to prepare.

Start with normal back-to-school planning.

As in past years, it is time to push bedtimes back to an earlier hour and institute wake-up calls. It is also time to trim back summer’s expanded gaming and social media use to make room for upcoming homework and after-school activities. Have fun with your shopping for supplies and clothes. This is also a perfect time to introduce new responsibilities and freedoms. For example: “Now that you are in ______ grade, you will have a new chore, but you’ll also have a later bedtime/increase in allowance/a smartphone.”

It is also important to discuss hopes and anxieties around a new school year. The usual questions include: What will my teacher be like? Will the work be hard? What if I can’t keep up? Will I be with my friends? Take some time to reinforce how all students will be in the same boat from last year’s academic losses, and how teachers might take this into consideration. Reassure younger ones that teachers often care about students across all areas of their lives. And while they might be in class with a friend, it is important to work on making new friends, too.

For older, high-achieving students, this will be a good time to discuss past academic and extracurricular pressure. Rather than diving into the deep end of the stress pool, perhaps they might want to reassess the activities in which they want to engage.

Discuss and plan for COVID-19 adjustments.

This part of your planning will be dependent on your local transmission rates and guidelines. For instance, some districts have said that they will end remote learning altogether while others are considering a hybrid model for COVID-related problems. You’ll also need to have a plan in place in case students in a classroom are sent home due to a positive test, or your entire school needs to return to remote learning due to a case resurgence.

While K-12 schools are questioning requirements regarding student vaccinations, you will have less ambiguity in your own planning if your student is vaccinated. Given a positive case in a classroom, this might afford you the option of keeping your child at school. Make sure you are informed on the procedures your school has in place.

Several changes to discuss with your child who attended some in-person school last year include the likelihood of no masks, return to normal class size (vs. smaller cohorts), less restrictive social distancing for seating and walking in line, and a return to activities that involve some physical touch. Younger students may need extra reassurance that these new freedoms are safe. You should also discuss that good hygiene standards are still important, such as frequently washing hands and covering sneezes or coughs.

Spend some time processing emotions and thoughts from last year and what hopes your children have for the upcoming one. Then, talk about your family’s contingency plans, should these hopes not come to fruition. While summer gave students and parents time to decompress and grieve the losses from the pandemic, going back to school can trigger anxiety and feelings over what was lost.

Address special needs before school starts.

If your child has special considerations, such as a 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Plan, inquire ahead of time about what services will be available. You will also want to give extra support to younger students, or children struggling with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder or social/separation anxiety. Help these students visualize how school drop-offs and pick-ups will take place, and how remote learning will be implemented should that be necessary. Go over how to ask a friend or teacher for help when feeling overwhelmed.

Celebrate your kids’ resilience. In the past year and a half, your kids had to make exceedingly difficult lifestyle adjustments and deal with numerous losses. Working at a school myself, I witnessed countless examples of children finding unique, creative ways to play and learn. Should the virus continue to dissipate, you might also want to consider a special end-of-summer ritual to put COVID-19 in the past and begin with a clean slate. As one fifth grade student recently said to me: “I want to take my masks and burn them in my dad’s grill.” Here’s to the new school year!

Craig A. Knippenberg serves as the mental health consultant for St. Anne’s Episcopal School. He has provided child and family counseling services for more than 35 years and is the author of Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions To Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success.

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